Torsten N. Wiesel

Born: June 3, 1924 | Uppsala, SE
Photograph of Torsten N. Wiesel

Torsten N. Wiesel was born near Stockholm, Sweden. He attended medical school at Karolinska Institute and worked there before coming to the United States as a postdoc at Johns Hopkins University. There he worked on epilepsy. One of his brothers had become schizophrenic, which prompted Torsten's interest in neuroscience. Working in Kuttler's lab, he dealt with retinal ganglion receptive fields/responses to light stimulation, using cats and monkeys as his lab animals. David Hubel arrived at Hopkins, and the two men began a very long collaboration that in 1981 garnered them the Nobel Prize. In 1983, after Torsten had been chairman for ten years, he moved to Rockefeller University and became president. He is now Secretary General of the Human Frontier Science Program in Strasbourg.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0370
No. of pages: 48
Minutes: 226

Interview Sessions

Arthur Daemmrich and David J. Caruso
4 May and 10 October 2007
Rockefeller University, New York, New York

Abstract of Interview

Torsten N. Wiesel was born and grew up near Stockholm, Sweden, the youngest of five children. His father was a psychiatrist at Beckomberga Hospital, a mental institution comprising 30-40 fenced acres, and the whole family lived in the compound, as did other staff members and their families. Wiesel attended a private school in Stockholm, but was more interested in soccer and orienteering than studying. When he was in his teens his parents divorced, and he decided to become a doctor. He attended medical school at Karolinska Institute and worked there for a few years before coming to the United States as a postdoc in Stephen Kuttler's lab at Johns Hopkins University. There he worked on epilepsy. One of his brothers had become schizophrenic; this, along with his frustration with the lack of insightful care for the mentally ill in the 1940's and 1950's, prompted Torsten's interest in neuroscience. Working in Kuttler's lab with Kenneth Brown, he dealt with retinal ganglion receptive fields/responses to light stimulation, using cats and monkeys as his lab animals. David Hubel arrived at Hopkins, and the two men began a very long collaboration that in 1981 garnered them the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Eventually, after moving through several departments at Harvard University, Wiesel ended up in the neurobiology department, where he ultimately became the chairman. In 1983, after Torsten had been chairman for ten years, he and Charles Gilbert, with whom he was then working, moved to Rockefeller University. There he became chairman of the faculty, and was thus asked to be president when David Baltimore resigned. Wiesel brought together again the disillusioned faculty and, with a substantial gift from David Rockefeller, recruited more good scientists. He now spends some time in Sweden, where he visits his two sisters and one brother twice a year, and in Strasbourg, where he is Secretary General of the Human Frontier Science Program. He has many professional affiliations and directorships; he has won many, many awards, and he has published much.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1954 Karolinska Institute MD Medicine

Professional Experience

Karolinska Institute

1954 to 1955
Instructor, Department of Physiology
1954 to 1955
Assistant, Department of Child Psychiatry, Karolinska Hospital

Johns Hopkins University

1955 to 1958
Fellow in Ophthalmology
1958 to 1959
Assistant Professor, Opthalmalic Physiology

Harvard Medical School

1959 to 1960
Associate Professor, Neurophysiology/Neuropharmacology
1960 to 1964
Assistant Professor, Neurophysiology/Neuropharmacology
1964 to 1967
Assistant Professor, Psychiatry
1967 to 1968
Professor, Physiology
1968 to 1983
Professor, Neurobiology
1973 to 1982
Chairman, Neurobiology
1974 to 1983
Robert Winthrop Professor, Neurobiology

The Rockefeller University

1983 to 1994
Vincent & Brooke Astor Professor
1991 to 1998
President
1994
Professor Emeritus, Vincent & Brooke Astor Professor
1999
President Emeritus

Honors

Year(s) Award
1969

1967 Honorary AM, Harvard University

1971

The Dr. Jules C. Stein Award, Research to Prevent Blindness

1972

The Lewis S. Rosenstiel Prize, Brandeis University

1972

Ferrier Lecture, Royal Society of London

1975

The Friedenwald Award, Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology

1976

The Grass Lecture, Society for Neuroscience

1977

The Karl Spencer Lashley Prize, American Philosophical Society

1978

The Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, Columbia University

1979

The Dickson Prize, University of Pittsburgh

1980

The George Ledlie Prize, Harvard University

1980

Society for Scholars, Johns Hopkins University

1981

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

1982

Doctor of Medicine (honoris causa), Linkoping University

1982

Doctor of Medicine and Surgery (honoris causa), Ancona University

1982

Doctor of Science (honorary), University of Pennsylvania

1983

William D. Stubenbord Visiting Professor, Cornell University Medical College

1987

Doctor of Science (honorary) University of Bergen, Norway

1989

Doctor of Medicine (honorary), Karolinska Institute

1990

Doctor of Humane Letters (honorary), Johns Hopkins University

1992

Doctor of Science (honorary), Harvard Medical School

1993

Doctor of Science (honorary), University of Connecticut, Storrs

1994

Doctor of Science (honorary), Ohio State University, Columbus

1995

Doctor of Science (honorary), State University of New York, College of Optometry, New York City

1995

Doctor of Science (honorary),Wesleyan University

1996

Doctor of Science (honorary),University of Arizona, Tucson

1996

Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research

1998

Presidential Award, Society for Neuroscience

1998

Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Miguel Hernandez, Alicante, Spain

2003

Doctor of Science (honorary), Rockefeller University

2004

Doctor of Science (honorary), Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic

2004

Doctor of Science (honorary), Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine

2005

Institute of Medicine David Rall Medal

2005

National Medal of Science, USA

2006

Spanish National Research Council, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (CSIC) Gold Medal

Table of Contents

Early Affiliation with Pew Charitable Trusts
1

Early program attempting to link basic science with clinical neuroscience. Beginning Latin American Scholars Program with Rebecca W. Rimel. Discussion of MD/PhD programs. Philosophy of global cooperation in science. Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) to promote this philosophy. Following Joshua Lederberg as Chair of Advisory Committee for Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. Details of selection of Scholars

Funding in Science
7

Various foundations' funding policies. National Institutes of Health funding requirements. Wiesel's theory that too much money leads to mediocre science. Political pressures on government funding. Measuring the success of a program. Promoting research rather than a project. Tension for a young scientist between building his reputation and exploring new fields.

Early Years
23

Grew up near Stockholm, Sweden, in mental hospital compound, where hisfather was psychiatrist. Liked soccer and orienteering. Parents divorced when Torsten in midteens, and he decided to become a doctor so as to be able to support himself. One brother's schizophrenia led to interest in neuroscience. Also interested in politics.

Medical School
28

Matriculated at Karolinska Institute. Lived Spartan life. Lack of good treatment for mentally ill in 1940s and 1950s led to desire to study neuroscience. Research in Einar Bohm's lab at Uppsala Universitet, studying epilepsy.

Postdoctoral Years
35

Recruited by Stephen Kuttler at Johns Hopkins University, where he worked on retinal ganglion responses to light stimulation. David Hubel came to Kuttler's lab, and the two began a long collaboration. Both went to Harvard. Wiesel changed departments, worked with Hubel all along. Then Wiesel moved to neurobiology, where he eventually became chairman. In 1981 the two won theNobel Prize.

Rockefeller University
38

With Charles Gilbert Wiesel moved to Rockefeller University, later succeeding David Baltimore as president. As well as chairing the Pew Scholars program, he now works for Human Frontier Science Program, based in Strasbourg, France, and travels to Sweden to visit two sisters and one brother.

Index
47

About the Interviewer

Arthur Daemmrich

Arthur Daemmrich is an assistant professor in the Business, Government, and International Economy Unit at Harvard Business School and a senior research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. His research examines science, medicine, and the state, with a focus on advancing theories of risk and regulation through empirical research on the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and chemical sectors. At HBS he also plays an active role in an interdisciplinary Healthcare Initiative, advancing scholarship and developing applied lessons for the business of creating and delivering health services and health-related technologies. Daemmrich was previously the director of the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. He earned a PhD in Science and Technology Studies from Cornell University in 2002 and has held fellowships at the Social Science Research Council/Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation. He has published widely on pharmaceutical and chemical regulation, biotechnology business and policy, innovation, and history of science.

David J. Caruso

David J. Caruso earned a BA in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and a PhD in science and technology studies from Cornell University in 2008. Caruso is the director of the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute, president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and editor for the Oral History Review. In addition to overseeing all oral history research at the Science History Institute, he also holds an annual training institute that focuses on conducting interviews with scientists and engineers, he consults on various oral history projects, like at the San Diego Technology Archives, and is adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses on the history of military medicine and technology and on oral history.  His current research interests are the discipline formation of biomedical science in 20th-century America and the organizational structures that have contributed to such formation.